A Birthday Breakfast Turned Into a Business Lesson

It was my birthday several weeks ago, and my wife wanted to treat me to a relaxing morning. She let me sleep in, got the kids ready for school and after dropping them off we went to have my favourite breakfast at a local greasy spoon. As always, I ordered 3 scrambled eggs with bacon and home fries. When it comes to breakfast, I like it simple and consistent. You don’t have to be fancy with bacon and eggs; you just have to make it well.

When our meals came, I looked down and noticed my bacon looked like 3 pieces of charred leather. I picked up a piece and it instantly crumbled in my hand. As a rule, I tend not to send back food if I’m not bothered by the error, but with this meal, half the order was wrong and let’s face it, eggs just don’t taste the same without the bacon!

I managed to flag the waitress down and asked her to bring me some new pieces of bacon. She hesitated but put on the smile, said “of course” and took my plate away. Since she took all of my food away, I assumed that this would be replaced immediately, since my wife had her food and wasn’t going to let it sit and go cold.

20 minutes later, my wife was finishing up her breakfast and we were both very annoyed at this point. My new breakfast finally arrived, and the waitress apologized for the delay and said that there was another customer who complained about the bacon as well. They had a large group come in and she thinks the cooks pre-made a lot of bacon in advance to be prepared.

Of course, this apology did nothing to make me feel better or repair my experience, and this whole issue could have been avoided if any of the staff had been more proactive about the situation. Before having our children, my wife was a Human Resources Associate, and she had much to say about culture and how this was a perfect example of culture gone wrong. We had a long discussion about how it applies to all businesses and to my industry, in particular.

In the current situation, the staff clearly felt they were just there to do their job with a minimum amount of effort. Now, mistakes happen, but when you see a series of errors made by more than one person, there’s more to it. These errors are a reflection on the managers of the restaurant and the culture they’ve created. Below is a play-by-play of the miss-steps involved in my birthday breakfast, which demonstrated that the staff did not belong to a service-driven culture.

  1. The cook knowingly served crusty old bacon. Whether he had learned in the past that wasting food would bring negative consequences to himself, or whether he was careless about the quality of food he was serving is a mystery. Either way, he chose to put out bad food.
  2. The waitress did not quality-check the plates before bringing them to the guests. She admitted she knew of the quality issues with another guest. This suggests that she didn’t feel it was her responsibility or didn’t have any desire to repair the problem on her own before it had a chance of happening again.
  3. Our food was delivered and the server walked away. She didn’t stay to give us the chance to inspect our meals to ensure they were satisfactory to us. It’s one thing to bring bad food and ask (hope) if the client likes it. Leaving before we could say anything suggests the server wanted us to just accept the food, eat it, and not give her any hassle.
  4. When I complained, the server took all of my food but left my wife’s. In my opinion, you take it all or you leave what’s good and quickly replace the bad bacon. It’s Hospitality 101 that all guests should have their food at the same time. We came for the experience of eating together, not to take turns watching each other eat.
  5. A meal sent back should become top priority on the kitchen line. It’s a red flag that someone is not happy and it’s the kitchen’s fault. Instead of my new food coming out within minutes, my complaint got put to the back of the line and I waited longer for my second plate than I did for my first. If that’s not a passive-aggressive statement of “don’t bother me with your complaints”, I don’t know what is.


The Forgotten Role of Culture in Business

Culture is the life-blood and identity of a business. Everything from branding, training, staffing, service, products and marketing must stem from culture. It must be led, fed and exemplified by management, and tended to at all times to ensure every single staff member believes they are a part of this vision. The staff must believe that maintaining these attitudes and behaviours is critical to the company’s success. Staff must feel empowered to take ownership of their jobs, make them better, and know they will be recognized for their efforts. If management fails to live by example and breathe these values into their staff, neglect and indifference begin to spread like a disease.

For those organizations who don’t set out with their desired culture, a negative culture will set in by default.


The Culture in a Sales Office

In most sales offices, the goal is naturally to make more sales. This is logical; all companies want to generate more revenue. Greasy spoons want to sell more bacon and eggs and real estate companies want to sell more homes. But when the goal of “more sales” is so obsessed over that it becomes the company’s default culture, a whole host of service problems are created. Whatever management says is important in the terms of recognition or reward is what staff will focus on. It’s pretty simple. You can talk a good talk about quality, service, teamwork and initiative all you want, but if these things never get recognized in any established way, then it’s nothing but empty words with no actions. Those who care about client relationships will slowly leave, and slowly the company will attract more sales sharks.

Culture is always at work, impacting the company, it’s whether management is steering this activity or if it’s happening by default.

The rub is that most customers want really good service. Companies like Starbucks & Whole Foods prove that people are willing to pay a fair price for good service. It’s when the service becomes notoriously poor that customers demand rock bottom prices. So when your default culture is to “make more sales” instead of “knock the socks off your client’s expectations”, you enter into a race to the bottom where no on wins, especially the customer.


Real Estate Culture

Whether we are talking about an entire brokerage or a smaller team with 1 leader, most fall victim to the “more sales” goal, which has defaulted into their culture. Quantity and volume are critical, because this is what is being recognized as a success. Quality is spoken of, of course. Yes, we strive to provide THE BEST service to our clients. But this talk of “best service” isn’t written into any of their standard practices, their Key Performance Indicators, their systems, or processes. Their staff receive no rewards or recognition for the relationships they build that are deeper than a Facebook like or a cold call.

Culture is an incredibly difficult thing to get right, and an incredibly easy thing to get wrong.

I truly believe that a company’s culture must be founded on the customer experience and empowering staff to take ownership over this process. This requires ensuring there is no negative impact for trying to do the right thing, and no positive reward for cutting corners. Whether you run a greasy spoon or a real estate team, if you focus on creating a culture of empowerment and service, the happy customers and greater sales will naturally come.